Understand the Concept of Love: Remembering Sega’s Jet Set Radio Future

“Understand, Understand, understand the concept. The concept of love.”  

In the opening credits of Jet Set Radio Future, we are greeted by an energetic song, those lyrics on repeat while the camera pans over a futuristic cel-shaded  Tokyo. I cannot imagine a more perfect introduction to the Sega game released in 2002 for the original Xbox console. Jet Set Radio Future is the follow-up to the Sega game, Jet Grind Radio released for the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. Like it’s predecessor, JSRF allowed players to play as a group of teenagers who skated in a future Tokyo. What made the game stand out during its time were the many elements of hip hop incorporated. The game is praised by many game lovers including myself, who especially remembers music-centric games. For those who don’t know, in the Mid 90’s, music-centric games were really popular (like Parappa the Rapper, Dance Dance Revolution, and Bustagroove). In a similar fashion of the aforementioned titles;  it was a blend of sci-fi, eclectic music, and cyberpunk fashion. While there’s no follow-up planned, it’s important to recognize its significance in a time like this.

Jet Set Radio Future is arguably a classic many hip hop fans would enjoy. I distinctively remember my brother receiving JSRF one Christmas. Excitedly, we opened the packaging to reveal the game along with Sega GT 2002. We were soon introduced to this epilepsy inducing game, suddenly emerged in this whirlwind for its loudness. It was nothing like we never saw. Video game fans would probably compare JSRF to EA’s big title SSX Tricky, also released in 2001, due to the aesthetics and gameplay. It was popular at the time but in retrospect pales in comparison. Jet Set Radio Future is set in Tokyo-to in the year 2024.  At the beginning, there’s a tutorial that shows you how to use your inline skates. Afterward, you are given the option to play with two other GG members: Corn and Gum.

The crew you run with are known as the GGs comprised of stylish teenagers with no immediate cares of the world. While you have a few characters at the beginning of the game, you’ll be able to recruit skaters with varying degrees of attributes as you progress. I am unsure who started the GGs, as the game does not delve into the origins of their inception. The plot is a tad bit irrelevant in favor for engaging in the gameplay; given that it is an action-adventure game.  The gist of the story is The GGs fights against rival gangs trying to take over Tokyo-to through tagging several neighborhoods. Other adversaries include a corporation (Rokkaku group)  and a amped up police wrecking havoc throughout the city.  What Jet Set Radio Future lacked in the plot made up for gameplay, offering countless hours of playability after completing the story mode.

 The main objective of JSRF is to tag your territory throughout Tokyo.  Tagging consists of collecting spray cans and using your characters athleticism to tag an acquired target. Pretty simple, right?  Wrong. Players are tested usually by time challenges or obstructions to complete various goals. Players play through levels claiming their territory in order to progress through the storyline. Throughout the levels spray cans are littered at your disposal as you attempt to reach targets. Spray cans may be used for boosts or when you need to attack an enemy. Your characters can get hurt if they fall into large pools of water, are hit by projectiles shot by enemies, or crash into large objects.

Like other extreme sports games of the time, players could reach high speeds, causing the visuals to become blurry. Like skating culture in real life, players can grind, skate backward, and perform various other tricks. Fantastical elements further add to the gameplay; players can building hop, skate on walls, and launch yourself with boosts.

Tagging has its consequences, though. Police will chase you if spotted. Your tags can be painted over by other players and rival gangs. Like any adventure game, players should assess what skills to utilize as they traverse the hyperactive world of Tokyo-to. Tokyo-to is divided into different prefectures that players can explore in an open world format. There’s no stagnancy as the game is full of people, roaring buses, and all the sounds that encompass city life. Tokyo-to has elements that seem more like a skate park than a city with half pipes, ramps, and bowls.

The elements of hip hop are featured extensively in this game. It would be disingenuous to not examine it. We know that hip-hop was born in the 1970s in the South Bronx by Black and Latino young people, over the decades it has become a worldwide commodity. Often times hip-hop’s  cultural significance has been duplicated, erased, or distorted. Any fan of hip hop knows how complicated it can be to look back at the history of hip hop seeing its contemporary state. While Hip Hop is usually just solely defined by the musical genre, the culture consists of five elements. The five components being Bboying, MCing, Graffiti, DJing, Beatboxing. Bboying, for those who don’t know, is a form of dancing that boasts a high level of athleticism, sometimes known as break dancing. An MC was a designated wordsmith who kept the party alive by moving the crowd with their words. A DJ or a beatsmith layered tracks of different songs to make a brand new entity all at his or her fingertips. Then there are beatboxers. Skilled musicians who’s the only instrument is their mouth, usually re-creating percussion-based sounds. Beatboxers usually accompany an emcee to create a song. However, these roles have shifted over time due to technology and musical influences.  How does this play out in the SEGA classic?

Well for one, the soundtrack is eclectic and at times bizarre. There are several genres that comprise of it. One of them being hip-hop, specifically underground hip hop artists. For the untrained ear, the musical selection might be a misnomer because it didn’t sound like any of the rap we heard on the American Airwaves at the time. There are other genres like EDM, but the soundtrack overall is unforgettable due to its eccentricity. It should be noted that acclaimed Japanese composer Hideki Naganuma contributed several tracks. There’s no shortage of music to be found which varies from stage to stage, but can be later accessed via an in-game jukebox.

Another standout is the urban aesthetic of the character designs.  They wore gold chains, baggy jeans, and very fashion forward pieces. The playable characters are not customizable but they all have their unique style and skates.  The aesthetics remind me of the character designs seen in Square Enix titles Kingdom Hearts, The World Ends With You, and The Bouncer. In total there are 21 characters you can choose from in the complete roster as you progress. These characters all dance during active gameplay and boogie when you are resting mid-gameplay. JSRF undoubtedly is one of the most interesting games released this past 20 years. There’s no shortage of motion, the tags vary from each gang and players have the option to create their own tag.

While it may be difficult to get a hard copy of JSRF, players should be ecstatic to know that the game is backward compatible with the Xbox 360. This game is a gem, overlooked in a time where Halo was gaining popularity.  There’s still no sign for a  follow-up, even though there was rumored to be a Wii game but it never came to fruition. For folks who yearn for music-centric games, I recommend this game.  I strongly advocate it for folks who want a change from first person shooters.  I am sure game lovers across the board will enjoy this quirky extreme sports game. It’s lauded for its eccentricity which makes it’s cherishable 15 years later.


Author: N.Atari

N.Atari is a writer from the south. She is a Black Bishoujo trying to be a magical girl in a world that says she can’t. She was raised a nerd, hip-hop aficionado, and social justice advocate.